- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2007

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Surging gun violence never got Kathy O’Neill to think about moving her family out of Philadelphia. Neither did an ever-struggling school system.

Only when plans popped up for two towering casinos — one just blocks from her South Philadelphia home — did Mrs. O’Neill and her husband decide they needed to do something.

“We used to say, ‘I guess we’ll always stay in the city unless we get robbed or jumped or something,’ ” Mrs. O’Neill said.

Though the planned slots-only parlors are essentially a done deal, the couple has joined a group hoping that by being enough of a nuisance, it can slow down and stop Philadelphia from passing Detroit to become the nation’s largest city with casino gambling.

Led by a group called Casino Free Philadelphia, opponents are trying to force the casinos to move to less residential areas or out of the city altogether. They say the parlors will bring increased crime, reduced property values, traffic and pollution to their residential communities.

They also are trying to prevent a city popularly defined by the Liberty Bell, demanding sports fans and cheesesteaks from becoming known as the largest with a casino.

A state law opening Pennsylvania to slot machines dictated that Philadelphia get two casinos and that it put the decision where they would go in the hands of a state board. That left the city, and its residents, with little say over the projects, other than to make sure zoning regulations were followed.

The Mashantucket Pequot Indians, who own the hugely successful Foxwoods casino in Connecticut, won the right to build a $560 million project on the Delaware River waterfront a few hundred feet from the O’Neills. Chicago billionaire Neil G. Bluhm and his company, Sugarhouse, were awarded a slot license for a $600 million casino complex several miles upriver.

Opponents are trying everything they can. Vocal protesters forced the adjournment of a state gaming commission meeting last month. Opponents have sued to overturn the state’s gaming law, and they are plotting to delay the permits needed to build the casinos.

“We’re just going to do everything that we possibly can to delay it and possibly stop it,” said JoAnn Sherman, a longtime resident of the city’s Fishtown neighborhood, who would live a few hundred feet from the planned Sugarhouse casino.

The two groups that won slots licenses in Philadelphia hope to open their casinos as early as next year, and said they will not move to different locations.

They say that their projects will bring many benefits, from jobs to civic improvements, and that opposition is coming only from a small number of people.

“We don’t see them as a threat to the business operations,” said Maureen Garrity, a Foxwoods spokeswoman. “It’s not a question of if (it opens), it’s a question of when.”

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